Qing Tombs Tell Tales

Sun Dianying is perhaps China's most famous grave robber. In the pre-dawn hours of July 8, 1928, the warlord led his army into the Eastern Mausoleum of Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) in Zunhua, Hebei Province. Sun's army blasted the wall of Dowager Empress Cixi's burial chamber.

Zunhua, the final resting place of the Qing emperors and empresses, lies about 120 kilometers from the Forbidden City in Beijing. Once forbidden itself, the 78-square-kilometer burial site is for five emperors, 15 empresses and 136 imperial concubines within 15 tombs, including the first Qing emperor Shunzhi (1638-1661), China's longest reigning emperor Kangxi (1654-1722), China's most longevous emperor Qianlong (1711-1799), and the infamous, powerful empress Cixi (1835-1908).

Yet none of the legendary power of the "Dragon Throne" could help them that summer day, as they lay in their dragon robes and phoenix coronets -- soon to be torn and trampled by the looters.

After removing the treasures from the graves, Sun and his army sealed the empty chambers with stones. They carted off some of China's greatest treasures, but some things couldn't be easily removed, and the imposing buildings of the mausoleum still survive. They were included in the World Heritage List 2000, a testament to their historic and cultural importance.

Perfect 'feng shui'

The ancient Chinese believed that spirit lived on after death, and therefore the placement of tombs was crucial to the well-being of the deceased's spirit and the prosperity of the descendants -- a concept applied in exacting detail and sparing no expense when it came to the imperials.

The Qing imperial burial site, selected by the first Qing Emperor Shunzhi during a hunting expedition, is a perfect site according to the principles of "feng shui." Surrounded by mountains and rivers, the mausoleum offers a more expansive view than the Forbidden City.

Jinxing (Golden Star) Mountain serves as a natural screen in front of the mausoleum, while Yingbi (Screen Wall) Mountain arches in the middle, and Changrui (thriving and lucky) Mountain rises in the rear. This latter mountain is fortuitously shaped like a dragon, the symbol of Chinese emperors. Two rivers, Xida and Weijin, zigzag the vicinity of the mausoleum.

The novel stone archway which leads to the tombs is 31 meters long and 12 meters high, adorned with exquisite carvings. The five-entrance archway also marks the beginning of this mausoleum's axis.

It survived two earthquakes, but the imperial family and the tombs could not escape destruction -- as history makes abundantly clear.

Qianlong's mausoleum

The scale of the mausoleum precludes visiting all 15 tombs in one day, but experienced guides recommend Qianlong's Yu Mausoleum and Cixi's Ding Mausoleum for those on tight itineraries. The imperial resting places are fascinating -- and make an interesting contrast.

As China's longevous emperor, Qianlong's reign lasted 60 years, and even after abdicating to his son, he continued to rule for an additional three years.

The mausoleum was under construction for 57 years, utilizing the best materials that the country had to offer: stones from Hebei, bricks from Shandong, and wood from Yunnan.

As you enter the mausoleum, a marble slab alongside the steps features a dragon carving, symbolizing emperor on the right and a phoenix, symbolizing empress on the left.

The doors to the burial chamber reflect emperor's belief in Buddhism. The doors are inscribed with Buddhist text and within the chamber, bathed in glowing green light, exquisite carvings dazzle the eyes. The carvings took three years to complete and cost 500 kilograms of silver.

Qianlong was laid to rest in a giant coffin placed in the center of the burial chamber -- his portrait placed above the coffin, and his empress and four concubines surrounding him. During the 1928 raid on the tombs, the bones of the deceased were unceremoniously dumped from their vessels, making the identification of the empress and concubines difficult.

Dowager Empress

When Emperor Xianfeng died unexpectedly in 1861, his widow, Cixi, wrested power from the eight principal ministers, and Tongzhi (to whom the emperor had bequeathed the throne) was still a child. Thus began the so-called "Chui Lian Ting Zheng" period, meaning "ruling from behind a screen," while implying her usurpation of Tongzhi's rule. Cixi was the de facto sovereign for 48 years.

The two emperors of the following periods became puppets, and Cixi was their puppet mistress.

The marble slabs in her tomb -- in contrast to Qianlong's pattern, where the dragon and phoenix glide side by side -- Cixi's phoenix flies above the dragon, a testament to her power.

During a 14-year renovation of the tombs, Cixi -- who always acted with her legacy in mind -- ordered the use of pear wood to build the main hall -- Long'en (Benevolence) Hall.

The hall now displays some of Cixi's pictures, her wax doll, her shroud and several of her favorite objects, including British cigarettes and theatrical costumes.

According to Diary of Moon Loving Pavilion by Li Lianying, Cixi's favorite court eunuch, her tomb was filled with treasures: Within her coffin were 108 golden and jade Buddha statues, eight jade horses, a jade pagoda, 203 white jade pieces, 85 moonlight jade pieces and 24,704 pearls. Her mouth held a luminous pearl the size of a pigeon egg, which was believed at the time to prevent decomposition.

Western Mausoleum

The early two Qing emperors, Shunzhi and Kangxi, were buried in the eastern mausoleum. Kangxi's son, Yongzheng, then chose Yixian for Western Mausoleum, a location said to conform to "feng shui" ideas in every respect. Theories regarding the reason for the two mausoleums abound. Some historians believe that since Yongzheng murdered his father to win the throne, he feared lying next to him in death. Others maintain that the emperor wanted a mausoleum that surpassed his ancestors.

In erecting his own tomb, Yongzheng left his son, Qianlong, with a dilemma: Should he be buried in the west with his father, or in the east with his ancestors? He opted for the latter, but proclaimed that his son be buried alongside Yongzheng. Five rulers lie in the eastern mausoleum, while four are buried in the west.

(Eastday.com May 24, 2002)

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